Holiness and Moral Grammars

The psychologist Jonathan Haidt, a leading moral psychology researcher, has suggested that there are four moral grammars that humans employ when making judgments of “wrongness.” These are:

Fairness/Justice: Things are deemed “wrong” when they are unfair or unjust (given cultural criteria).

Harm: Things are deemed “wrong” when harm is done. This can be all sorts of harm: Bodily harm, economic harm, status harm, emotional harm, etc.

Hierarchy Violation: Things are deemed “wrong” because a hierarchical relationship has been violated. Examples include issues of respect or deference or the differential rights/privileges of social groups of different standing.

Purity Violation: Things are deemed “wrong” when a previously “pure” state is contaminated by either a group or a behavior.

Haidt points out that each of these moral grammars have their own internal logic guiding judgments of “wrongness,” “sin,” or “morality.” Further, cultures mix these grammars in a multitude of ways. In some cultures a particular grammar is ascendant. In another culture the same grammar might be generally absent. But, at the end of the day, if someone deems an act to be “wrong” the claim generally is governed by one of these four grammars.

Haidt points out that in the contemporary American culture wars the difference between Christian conservatives and secular liberals is that each group deploys different moral criteria. Generally, liberals work with only two of the grammars: Harm and Justice. That is, they feel that an action should be sanctioned only if it either harms people or treats people unfairly. By contrast, conservative Christians deploy all four grammars. That is, even if an act doesn’t harm or cause injustice, it still might be ruled “wrong” for hierarchical (e.g., we must obey God’s law) or purity (e.g., contamination of a scared space, institution, or object, like one’s body) reasons.

It is due to the differential deployment of grammars which causes much of the culture wars. Take homosexuality as an example, as I did a few weeks ago in my adult bible class at Highland.

For the liberal, who only deploys two moral grammars, homosexuality isn’t “wrong.” The analysis runs like this:

Liberal Moral Grammar applied to Homosexuality
Harm? No.
Unfair? No.
Hierarchy Violation? NA
Purity Violation? NA

In fact, if we revisit the Fairness/Justice entry, we find that homosexuals are being treated unfairly. Thus, efforts on their behalf, on the grounds of justice, commence.

Let’s now look at the conservative Christian analysis of the “wrongfulness” of homosexuality:

Conservative Christian Moral Grammar applied to Homosexuality
Harm? No.
Unfair? No.
Hierarchy Violation? Yes. (Defiance of God’s Law.)
Purity Violation? Yes. (Act is deemed unnatural and deviant.)

What Haidt helps us see is this: Liberals and conservatives are talking past each other on these issues because they are not even applying the same moral criteria. They don’t agree, on a fundamental level, about what makes something “wrong.” Unless they each change their moral criteria, agreement is impossible.

Now, this discussion isn’t just between secular people and Christians. It’s a debate within Christianity as well.

In my opinion, the debate centers on if purity categories are, in essence, a form of harm. That is, is it intrinsically harmful to consider persons sources of pollution, defilement, corruption, disgust, and contamination? Are not those attributes, along with their socio-psychological sequelae, when applied to people demeaning, hurtful, and harmful?

If so, which moral grammar should trump in this debate? Harm or purity? As evidence of this current debate within Christianity, consider this comment from Walter Brueggemann:

[I]t is evident that the current and freighted dispute in the U.S. church concerning homosexual persons, especially their ordination, indicates the continuing felt cruciality of the tradition of holiness, even after we imagine we have moved beyond such “primitiveness.” It is my impression that the question of equal rights and privileges for homosexuals (in civil society as in the church) is a question that may be adjudicated on the grounds of justice. It is equally my impression, however, that the enormous hostility to homosexual persons (as to proposals of justice for them) does not concern issues of justice and injustice, but rather concerns the more elemental issues of purity—cleanness and uncleanness. This more elemental concern is evidenced in the widespread notion that homosexuals must be disqualified from access to wherever society has its important stakes and that physical contact with them is contaminating.

In Brueggemann’s quote “holiness” is a standing in for Haidt’s purity grammar. In short, we see the tension clearly articulated: What moral grammar gets applied to an issue like homosexuality?

I don’t necessarily want to dwell on homosexuality in this post, although it’s fine to take this post in that direction in your comments if you wish. I would like to meditate on the issue of holiness.

In my Highland class, as I was discussing Haidt’s grammars and applying them to the issues of homosexuality, a member of the class, one of ACU’s bible professors, said something along these lines: “This issue really just boils down to holiness.”

The comment stumped me. I couldn’t figure out what it meant.

First, perhaps the bible professor meant to equate holiness with purity. If so, then the issue doesn’t really “boil down” to holiness as there are other criteria that Christians like Brueggemann and myself are concerned with (e.g., justice).

Second, perhaps the bible professor meant to group all four of Haidt’s grammars (purity, hierarchy, justice, and harm) under the umbrella term of Holiness. If so, then that move doesn’t get us anywhere as some of those grammars conflict and require adjudication (see Brueggemann’s quote above).

In sum, I didn’t know what the bible professor was saying. I mean, it sounded good. Very theological. But as I unpacked the comment in my mind I found the term “holiness” (as used in this exchange) semantically (or at least rhetorically) vacuous. My suspicion is that the word “holiness” is so abstract as to be almost unhelpful in conversation. As a synonym for purity it is too narrow. Yet, as an umbrella term it fails to give guidance when making difficult adjudications between competing moral goods.

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6 thoughts on “Holiness and Moral Grammars”

  1. I think conservatives do frequently invoke the "harm" criteria in issues like homosexuality, abortion, stem cell research, etc. The argument, the way I understand it, usually goes something like this: If we don't stand up against homosexuality (abortion, stem cell research, etc.), and it becomes accepted practice, this will affect the very moral fabric of society. As a result, our marriages will suffer, our families will suffer, and the country will suffer (Dobson likes to compare it to Rome). In this case, the harm is not in the act itself, but rather in the widespread acceptance of the act. Potential societal harm, I guess, rather than direct individual harm.

    This does seem a much weaker criteria than direct, oberservable harm... but it is something I hear a lot, living in CO (with Focus on the Family).

  2. Pecs,
    Yes, I was thinking the same thing when I was writing. To try to make the data point fit (although I might be squeezing a round peg in a square hole) I'd argue along these lines:

    Contamination is a kind of harm. It is like a virus, or disease, weakening the integrity of the "body." So, although conservatives claim "harm," it still fits in the purity category (i.e., X is "corrupting" our youth or "weakening" the fabric of our Nation, etc.)

  3. The question I think is interesting is: Which of these criteria are valid for making laws binding on all people?

    Everyone would agree on #1 and #2. It is #3 and #4, as Richard pointed out, that divides. So when making moral law binding on society, is it ethical to use 3&4 as criteria? They seem like fine criteria for individual morality. But when used to make laws for society, I think they are suspect.

    Conservatives would say, God's laws are laws for a reason, and society will be better if we follow them.

    How ethical/fair is it for them to make this kind of appeal?

  4. Richard,

    I agree that "holiness" is an exceedingly abstract and hard to reference. Why is someone or something holy? How does the unholy become holy? If I wish to be holy, what steps should I take? Would I be holy if I took those steps, but nonetheless unjust?

    It might be more helpful to work with a grammar of hierachy. Several years ago when I taught in public schools, I heard from colleagues, administrators, and parents the mantra that children should learn to "respect authority." Knowing how readily adult Americans discount children through ignoring them, through brutality and/or through sentimentality, I responded that it wasn't really that simple. Children (and adults) should learn to respect others and that requires the hard work of learning by everyone. What the adults meant could be unpacked in four short statements: (1) do what I say because I am the adult and you are the child; (2) shut up when I tell you; (3) you have nothing to teach me because I am the adult, so don't question what I say; and, (4)(related to the second and third) as adult, I don't have to listen to you because you have nothing of value to say.

    None of these grammars is non-relational and it seems to me that our focused experience in relationship--usually profound joy or deep suffering--can cause us (or it has me) to review and reframe our descriptions, i.e. our "writing out of" life using and reworking these grammars.

    Thanks, again Richard (and PECS) for your thoughtful musings.


  5. George,
    Thanks. I was going to post on just that topic next, so more on this in a bit.

    Nope. I just stood there and blinked my eyes, trying to compute. I kept thinking, "Am I missing the point?" I decided later that there wasn't a point and, thus, this post was born.

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